Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Inconvenient Truths

Dear Friends,

You might remember a movie about ten years ago called “An Inconvenient Truth” that was about global warming and the effects on the environment. Whether you believe the science or not, you’ve got to love the title because so many things today are “inconvenient’ truths. There are a lot of inconvenient truths in our Bible. As Jesus said so politically-incorrectly, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” John 14:6 Or whoever believes in Jesus shall have everlasting life.” John 3:16 Those truths come smack up against some modern-day church teachings.

And as Black History Month comes to an end, I’ve been thinking about some inconvenient truths that smack up against the media narratives that form our beliefs and stereotypes. I try to stay politically centered by getting my news from the liberal Los Angeles Times, CNN and ABC and the conservative Fox News and the unexciting but objective Reuters News Service. The left and right leaning major news sources have a fixed narrative that is supported by the stories they feature. The few major media companies know they are influencing and changing the worldview of a culture by what they broadcast and publish. Here’s one example. Gallup polls show that only 3%-4% of us are homosexual but the same polls show that people believe that 20%-25% of our population is gay or lesbian. That belief was created and shaped by the power of story. By normalizing and celebrating same-sex relationships, the media changed a nation’s belief about marriage. Most people accept as gospel the “news stories” that form our opinions and stereotypes and then diligently avoid any truth that will discomfort us or shatter our worldview. But as Christians, we may want to apply the words of Jesus who told us, “And you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” John 8:32 And lately I’ve been thinking about some of these “inconvenient” truths.

Some of my black and nearly all of my liberal friends will be surprised to hear the results of a Marist Poll commissioned by the liberal NPR and PBS. Only 3% of whites agree with the white supremacy movement. And the actual number of white supremacists may be less than those who agree with some of their beliefs. The same poll showed that both 3% of conservative Republicans and 3% of liberal Democrats agree with the white supremacy movement. Yikes! There’s an inconvenient truth! Some of my dearest liberal friends will continue to believe the progressive message about racist conservatives, but the inconvenient truth is that 96% of Trump voters disagree with, dislike and hate white supremacists. In a news release to their affiliate stations on the poll results, NPR and PBS quoted only the percentage of democrats who strongly disliked Trump.

And I know that some of my good white Christian friends are going to be surprised to hear some inconvenient truths about their black neighbors. African Americans are more “Christian” than you are, Bubba! A Pew Research Center poll found that nearly 80% (79%) of African Americans are Christian believers compared to 70% of whites in our Nation. We look around our white churches and see very few blacks, if any at all, and we may make incorrect assumptions about the faith of African Americans. The truth is that they go to church even more than we do. They just don’t go to our church. Half of all African-Americans in our Country attend historically black Protestant churches. Only 14% go to Evangelical churches, 5% attend Catholic churches, 4% go to the mainline (Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal) churches and another 4% of blacks are Muslims, Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Buddhists. 

By most measures, our black brothers and sisters are far more committed to their faith than both whites and Latinos. For example, 75% of black believers say that religion is very important in their lives while only 49% of white believers and 59% of Hispanic believers would say the same thing. Black believers by a large majority (83%) believe in God with absolute certainty and only 61% of whites would claim to have the same level of certainty. Three-quarters of all African Americans pray daily and only half of white Americans do so. And African American Christians are also far more likely than their white Christian brothers and sisters to attend church weekly. If hearing these statistics messes with your assumptions about blacks and their faith, then just consider it another one of those “inconvenient” truths.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Hard Pruning

Dear Friends,

It’s a beautiful Monday morning. A little chilly but the sun is out and it should be a nice warm day. I put on leather gloves and gather my pruning tools. My outdoor cats gather to watch and meow quietly among themselves as they critique my work.

In order for my rosebushes to have a nice bloom of roses in the spring and summer months, it takes some work. Like our spiritual life, rosebushes require attentive care. If ignored, they will become a tangled mass of dead branches intertwined with unhealthy live ones. Errant shoots will drain the life out of the stems and rob them of their strength and health.

I study each rosebush. Identifying the deadwood. Determining what I want it to look like so that I can shape it accordingly. I think of the parallels with my own life. Is it just a coincidence that the time to prune my rosebushes comes during the season of Lent? When I need to self-reflect and prune out of my life anything that precludes or hinders healthy spiritual growth? 

Some people mistakenly believe that severe pruning causes weak and insufficient growth so they timidly and lightly prune and leave most of the rosebush intact. But the secret to an abundant and healthy rosebush is a wintertime robust and ruthless cutting back of the plant that’s called “hard pruning.” 

I get to work and aggressively begin to prune out the deadwood. On a rosebush you can quickly identify deadwood because no new growth is sprouting from it. Nothing new, green and healthy comes from wood that is hard, brown and dried up. It’s difficult to cut out the old dead wood. I use the long-handled pruners and have to apply real effort. What are those old dead things that I still cling to? Dried up old bitterness in my heart? That dry, hard sin of unforgiveness that I’ve held onto for all these years? The gnarled old sin of pride with its roots embedded so deeply in my soul? “..put off..the old man which grows corrupt.. and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.” Ephesians 4:22-24 That “old man” that the Apostle Paul talks about is our deadwood. It’s time for some hard pruning.

I next cut out any damaged branches. Bent. Broken. Something or somebody did something that damaged it in the past. Maybe kicked or hit the branch and left irreparable harm. They need to be pruned out. Has some part of me been damaged by something or somebody in my own past? Something that left a part of me bent or broken? An offensive or a hurt that I can’t let go of? Maybe something long ago that left pervasive negative thoughts about myself? Damaged thoughts prevent healthy spiritual growth. They must be cut back. It’s time for some hard pruning.

A neglected rosebush will become congested and unattractive. I now cut out misplaced stems. The ones rubbing together or just growing in the wrong direction. They are healthy and growing. But these branches are taking the plant in a direction I don’t want it to go and they detract from the overall attractiveness of the rose bush. They are jostling for limited space and I need to choose which ones I want to thin out. I take a close look at my own lifestyle and habits. All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. 1 Corinthians 6:12 What are those things that may be okay for me to do but are just not helpful for me to do? What are those things that clutter my life and keep me from growing in spiritual maturity and living in the presence of God? It’s time for some hard pruning.

When we are the one being pruned, we quickly find that the process is neither painless nor easy. We always need to keep God’s purpose for pruning in mind: “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” John 15:2

My rosebushes are now pruned in a manner that will grow them into a pleasing shape. And, during this season of Lent, my life also needs to be pruned into the shape that is most pleasing to God. It’s time for some hard pruning.   Amen?

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

It's SAINT valentine's day!

Dear Friends,

Several decades ago when I was engaged to be married, my wife-to-be didn't want an engagement ring. That was good news because I really needed to buy four new off-road tires for my Ford F-250 pickup. But being the thoughtful guy that I am, I did want to get her a nice engagement gift. So I went to Smart & Final and bought her an awesome industrial-quality mop bucket and a commercial mop. Yes. I know what you're thinking, but you don't understand. This was a very expensive top-of-the-line, 26 quart Rubbermaid mop bucket in safety yellow with four heavy-duty castors and a high-efficiency, commercial- quality wringer system! And being generous to a fault, I even bought her an extra cotton mop-head. Once married, we’d be moving into a large house with two kids, three dogs, a lot of linoleum flooring and I wanted her to have a fast and efficient system for cleaning the floors. Her mother was appalled at my thoughtfulness and from that day forward she was dead-set against her daughter marrying me. I’ll never forget the look on my mother-in-law’s face as she glared at me throughout the entire wedding ceremony.

And that brings me to Saint Valentine’s Day. While the romance gene may be recessed in my DNA, I’ve learned my lesson and so I no longer buy Valentine's Day gifts for loved ones from Smart & Final or Harbor Freight Tools. As we all know, Valentine’s Day is the day we give cards, gifts, candy and flowers to our special sweethearts, but what is the origin of this day of love and affection?

It was originally a church feast to honor a second century church bishop, Saint Valentine, who had married couples when Roman law prohibited it. Arrested and in jail, Valentine exchanged love notes with a young woman he was courting (that was before church rules banned clergy from being married) and he signed those notes, “from your Valentine.” He was martyred for helping others. 

Victorian England added Cupid to Valentine’s Day cards because Cupid is the pagan god of erotic love and lustful desire. In mythology, Cupid is the son of the love goddess Venus and he holds a bow and arrows which contain the deity’s power. When hit by Cupid’s arrow, the person is filled with uncontrollable lustful desire. Maybe I’m a cranky old Christian curmudgeon but isn’t that Cupid thing just a little too creepy? A naked, androgynous pudgy pagan god with the body of a baby and a genderless face who shoots arrows that fill people with lustful out-of-control desires? I’m wondering if maybe it’s time that we redeem this day of “love” and put the “saint” back into “valentines day.”

The “Two Great Commandments” from Jesus have everything to do with love. He said to Love God and Love Others. Matt 22:37-40 We love God because He first loved us 1 John 4:19 and we love others because once filled with the love of Christ, that love just naturally spills out and onto those who God brings into our lives. Jesus said that our love for one another should be the same as His love for us. And others will know that we are Christians by that Christ-like love that we have for others. John 13:34-35

What would a Christian Saint Valentine’s Day look like? Pastor and Christian author John Piper wrote, “Love is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others.” The Apostle John writes, “..let us not love in word or in tongue but in deed and in truth.” 1 John 3:18 In other words, stop just talking about love and do loving deeds. “Love” is a noun that in Christ becomes an action verb.

Loving others may mean that we first help to meet a person’s practical needs. Jesus didn’t just jump up on a tree stump in Capernaum to preach. He first met their physical needs. He fed them, healed them and cast out their demons. He listened to them and heard them. Then they followed Him. We meet a struggling single mom with young kids. She’s succumbing to her addictions and fighting for survival and we tell her that Jesus is the answer. But she can’t hear that because in her world her problem is not spiritual but practical. She needs food for her children. It’s when we do what Jesus would do.. When we love her like Jesus does.. When we help meet her practical needs.. Then perhaps her ears will be opened and we can tell her about Jesus. In the Kingdom of God, maybe every day should be a Saint Valentine’s Day... Amen?

from the AMEN Corner archives - Originally published in 2015

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Your Laughing Place

Dear Friends,

As a young boy, my favorite movie was Disney’s SONG OF THE SOUTH. The first movie to mix live actors with animated characters, it was a warm, sentimental story of a young (white) boy living with his mother on his grandmother’s plantation after his parents separated and his father deserted the family. Devastated by the loss of his father, the boy runs away from home but meets Uncle Remus, a former slave, who befriends the young boy and they bond in a father/son relationship. Uncle Remus tells the boy stories about the adventures of Br'er Rabbit and those stories are the animated parts of the film. Popular in the early 50's, this film was considered to be so controversial it is the only Disney film never released for home distribution. 

Set in the days of reconstruction after the Civil War, and with the black characters speaking in the dialect from that time, the film was found to be offensive by the NAACP because, “..scenes like blacks singing traditional black songs were offensive as a stereotype.” And just as many whites were offended by SONG OF THE SOUTH because a white boy had been befriended by a black man who was a very warm and endearing character. The outraged whites loudly objected to the movie because they were afraid it would create goodwill in the furthering of interracial relations. Of course as a kid, I knew nothing about all this shouting going on over my favorite movie. All I knew is that I identified with the boy in the movie and wanted an “Uncle Remus” to be my friend.

All of the stories told by Uncle Remus had strong moral lessons but one in particular that stands out was Br'er Rabbit’s, “The Laughing Place.” That’s the place where you can always go to be happy and I’m thinking that maybe even us non-animated, real-life human characters also need a laughing place.

Christians are not often characterized as a happy group of people. The sad truth is that too many of us are known not for our joy and happiness but for our bitterness and negativity. Like those in the Old Testament, we figuratively rend our garments and smear ashes on our head in response to even the petty problems in our life. We anxiously elevate the most minor trauma into major drama. We wring our hands over the fallen world. On Christian web-sites, there are daily prophetic voices telling us the time is now to enter into sustained fasts for our nation and the world. 

A well-known author recently told a conference of evangelicals that we Christians are not supposed to be happy! He said that the reality of the world is grim and any joy we have means that we have not fully understood the gruesomeness of our environment and we are fooling ourselves with the shallow emotion that we call happiness. Whew! Just hearing that makes me want to find my laughing place! 

Your laughing place will never become your place of permanent residency while on this planet. Only in Heaven will there be no more tears or sorrow. And so we do grieve over the world’s atrocities and our own tribulations can also cause great sorrow. But our sorrow cannot be a place of permanent residency either. Sometimes we just need to hit the reset button and restore the joy of life. We need to go to our laughing place.

Br'er Bear complains “But I’m not laughing.” Br'er Rabbit responds, “I never said this was your laughing place. This is my laughing place.” Your place will be different than mine. My laughing place is walking along Carpinteria Beach hand in hand with my loved one. She and I scour the beach looking for heart-shaped rocks and life is never better for us than those times. Your laughing place is the place that always makes you happy. It may be going on a walk or working in your garden. It may be going out to eat at a nice restaurant with good friends. It may be playing a board game or a rousing game of bunco. It may be hunting for thrift store treasures with a friend. It may be sitting outside and engaging in a stimulating conversation or lighthearted banter with a buddy. It may be playing with your grandchild or your cat or walking your dog. 

Think for a moment about the things you do and the places you go that always bring happiness and restore the joy in your soul. The Bible says that we are to “Rejoice Always..” 1 Thess 5:16-18 and in order to do that, some of us may need to spend a little more time in our laughing places...  Amen?

Watch a great clip from SONG OF THE SOUTH here.